My Friend Fear: A Beginner Kayaker’s Journey to Find Fun on the River


Scrolling the Google results for “tips for facing fear,” I groaned. I didn’t need another “Stay positive!” reminder. What I needed was to magically be able to breathe underwater—or at least roll reliably.

My community lives and breathes whitewater, possibly literally, considering how much of their spare time people spend on the river. I watch their Reels on Instagram. I catch them huddled at the take-out, recapping lines over waterfalls and listen to their whoops as they surf waves like it’s no big deal.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to unzip my dropseat so I can nervous pee next to a Class II rapid for the third time that morning. I don’t have a combat roll (yet). All my mismatched gear is borrowed. Beet red, I have to ask for help pulling my spray skirt over the cockpit. Every time.

“Just do it scared” isn’t a game-changing tip for landlubbers like me. Instead, with each week of learning to paddle, I’ve devoted myself to observing my relationship with fear and experimenting with how to keep it from running the show.

At this point, it feels like I’ve tried almost everything. Some strategies were helpful, some were a waste of time. But all of them got me on the water. While my roll still hasn’t improved, the paralyzing anxiety is (almost) giving way to fun.

Avoid the Fear Altogether
“Maybe the kayak will fly off the roof of the car and I won’t be able to paddle.”

“What if I forgot my spray skirt? I’d have to sit out.”

“I could just keep driving past the meeting spot…”

The yellow lines on the highway blurred as I drove myself to my first group paddle without my partner or an instructor, fingers gripping the wheel tightly as if fighting to turn the car around. My mind tried excuse after excuse, each one tempting me to give in and find a way to not have to paddle that day. If I could fully believe just one excuse (and convince my friends it was legitimate), I wouldn’t have to face my fear at all!

After all, I was brand new to kayaking. Nobody would blame me if I decided it wasn’t the sport for me. But soon enough, I pulled into the meeting spot, the boat still firmly strapped to the roof. My friends waved me over, and I knew I’d be accountable for getting my butt into the kayak and paddling as planned.

Rating: Dreaming up potential excuses reminded me that I don’t have to do anything, but it didn’t remind me that I get to be out there paddling with friends. If I wasn’t really feeling it, fine. It’s okay to say, “today’s not my day.” But I knew backing out would’ve left me even more frustrated with myself.

Too Busy to be Scared.
Panting and sweaty, I hobbled around the put-in, attempting to pull on my dry suit without letting the feet touch sharp rock. I’d already run six miles, played fetch with the dogs and cleaned the kitchen. My logic? If I packed my pre-paddle schedule to the brim, I had no time left to be scared. Instead, fear went into the “deal with it later” mental file.

Still, the nervous system can only handle so much stimulation. By the time I arrived at the put-in, I’d only spent a measly four minutes (the length of the drive) thinking about the stretch of river before me. At the put-in, I perched on a cold rock, mesmerized by the rippling current below a waterfall that my friends planned to oh-so-casually huck in a few minutes. It was only noon, and I was already wiped out, leaving me little energy to deal with the fear that had somehow caught up to me.

Rating: Yes, being busy distracted me from feeling fear in the hours before running the river. But it did nothing for me once at the put-in except leave me hectic and stressed. Maybe I had to be more present? Or at least have packed a snack.

Become One With The Kayak.
“I’m not distracting myself out of this one,” I thought one morning, loading gear into the car. As I fought to tame the hedgehog doing backflips in my stomach, I recalled my beginner kayaker course when my instructor told me, “Angie, you’re a thinker. And sometimes, you just need to stop thinking so much.”

Fine. Why not go full Olympian and pull out all the tricks to let my body lead the way? I meditated, I stretched. I visualized perfect peel-outs and a Zen-like t-rescue. I repeated my mantra, reminding myself that I am stoic, dammit!

“Inhale confidence, exhale doubt,” I repeated to myself, dragging my boat toward the bank. As I wedged myself into my plastic deathtrap and pushed off, I tried to exude a confidence I did not feel. “I am one with the kayak. I am the water.” The current grabbed at the boat, rocking my tense body, reminding me that I was, in fact, not the water. At only the second challenging rapid, all my mental training washed downstream and left me remarkably un-Zen.

“They’re just happy little waves! HAPPY! LITTLE! WAVES!”, I repeated as my partner gently pointed out that my tone did not match my words.

Rating: Mindfulness is a helpful tool to keep in your dry bag. It’s not going to hurt anything. But all forcing it did was give me a false sense of control. I needed to find a balance between thinking and feeling comfortable on the water.

Embrace My Inner Hydrology Nerd
Exasperated that none of my tricks were working, I looked to knowledge. Maybe I could educate my way into paddling with confidence? Logically, I knew I was pretty safe on the sections I was paddling: It was low-consequence water, my group had plenty of safety gear, and I was boating with people who could throw me on their deck and float me out of there blindfolded. Yet somehow, the fear felt truer than logic.

I leaned into science, reviewing lessons from a Swiftwater Rescue course. Current moves faster on the outside of a turn. A suspended load floats downstream faster than a surface load. That’s just a wave, not a hole. And that hole is friendly since it’s shaped like a smiley face. I quizzed myself on mnemonics learned in my beginner kayaking course: the Tuck-Tap-Tug-Tumble of a wet exit, the PASE of eddy turns. A level 1 edge is like sneaking a fart out from one butt cheek (those tips really stick with you). I dove into kayaking culture and lingo, Googling “What is a stern squirt?” and watching YouTube how-to videos.

The next time I hit the river, I vowed not to follow a friend through rapids but to read the water myself. And, finally, armed with knowledge, I felt the flow, the perfect mix of science and intuition that I’d been searching for! Well, until a strainer freaked me out. I overcorrected my strokes, bounced off the bank, spun around and shot myself backward down the waves, just squeaking by the wood, heart racing.

But progress over perfection, right?!

Rating: Getting swiftwater rescue training and kayak instruction has been worth every penny! My confidence was growing, but something was missing. I wasn’t quite ready to make peace with fear.

Invite Fear to the Paddle Party
“Mediocre kayakers, excellent stoke,” I tongue-in-cheek dubbed a new group text chat, inviting friends and acquaintances to partake in river-related chatter and planning.

After boating with a handful of other novice to intermediate female kayakers, I noticed that I wasn’t the only paddler wrestling with fear, and somehow, that felt comforting. I craved this empathy and camaraderie on the water.

This Mediocre Kayakers chat connected me to a community that gets it. Someone would suggest a time, and suddenly, we’d have a motley crew meeting up to support each other from rigging to rapids to shuttle. I watched my new friends flip and attempt three rolls before getting upright (or swimming), even when rocks scraped their helmets. I heard them admit their nerves and still offer to lead the way while shouting words of encouragement. It felt like a party, but one that fear was invited to join. So, I decided to allow fear to come for a ride with me.

Rather than desperately avoiding it, I found that fear and fun could go hand-in-hand. In this community, I could voice my fear, vocalizing my nervousness to those around me. My check-in a few rapids in of “I’m at 60% fear, 40% fun!” turned into “Take-out already?! But I’m at 95% fun!”

Instead of being too busy to think about fear, I built in more time for play on the river. I paddleboarded the same sections, getting a new vantage point where swimming wasn’t as scary. I practiced rolls in the lake, watched others playboat, and spent time picnicking by the water. Because if boating isn’t fun, why bother?

I stopped blocking out my thoughts and started asking questions so I could learn from a wide range of experiences. “Why do you like that length of paddle?” “Do you think I’d do well in that kind of boat?” “What went through your mind just then?” Finally, I allowed myself to choose my lines, shifting my focus to my feelings. Gratitude washed over me for the lush green banks beside me, a new appreciation for the beauty of mixing currents, for the patience of my group when I’m scream-laughing through the waves.

At the end of a recent run, my boat bobbing in the eddy, it hit me–I wanted to do that again. Now. It was the first time I wasn’t just relieved to have finished; I was aching for more. Finally, I understood why so many people live for this wild sport.

Rating: Winner, winner! Fear doesn’t have to become my BFF. But the more I attempt to dull it, the louder it yells. So, I’ll keep taking it along for the ride, knowing that by working alongside it, I’m forging a deeper relationship with myself and the forces of nature that make kayaking so worthwhile.

Fear doesn’t have to be a bad thing. But my fear was sneaky, popping up in times and places I didn’t expect, transforming how I looked at challenge and risk.

Even sneakier is how kayaking is becoming a full-blown infatuation. I didn’t want this to happen! Just months ago, I told my partner, “Kayaking isn’t going to become a thing for me. It’s just to try something new. Maybe I’d try Class III here or there, whatever.”

Suddenly, Reels of pro boaters populate my feed. My podcast queue is full of kayaking stories. I check the American Whitewater app for flows and morph shaky, Class II GoPro footage into pseudo-dramatic edits. There’s a gorgeous, hot pink kayak that I can’t afford but dream of for my future. Now, I visualize rapids not to mitigate my fear but because I can’t wait to run them. How am I daydreaming of the very thing that scares me?

As my skills and confidence progress, I know I’ll still have days where my brain tries to voice an excuse, where I turn to my breathing or my mantras or nervous peeing beside rapids. But for now, my newest fear is one I never expected: missing out on any of the trips to come.